Fiakers, fine dining and fantasies

#travel #austria #culinarysightseeing

“The true value of a moment can only be recognized when it becomes a memory.”

Truer words have never been spoken! This is a quote from the Riding Dinner website and goes hand-in-hand with their words “Experience Vienna with all your senses.”

To say the experience was well worth it would be far too mild a comment. Imagine getting to see historic sights of Vienna. Imagine riding in a traditional Fiaker carriage, pulled by two beautiful horses. Imagine eating world-class traditional Viennese food. Imagine being treated like royalty. Now put all these thoughts together into one and you will still not be able to imagine just how fabulous this experience is! You would be forgiven for thinking this is really just the stuff of fantasies, but the amazing Riding Dinner team have made it a sparkling reality.

Marco Pollandt and Raimund Novotny are the hosts of the experience, and came up with the idea one evening following a brainstorming session fueled in some part by helpings of Jägermeister… After putting together their plan, and with the help of strategic partners, the Riding Dinner was born.

Vienna in winter is the setting for my tale of wonder and royal treatment.  Rich and I were expecting something good but were blown away from start to finish by the friendly and professional service of our host for the day, Marco. The starting point for our dinner was the legendary Zum Schwarzen Kameel, which is apparently THE place to see and be seen if you are a local of Vienna. It’s a restaurant, bar and deli, and is eye-opening to say the least. The owner is a rather eccentric fellow and could be seen moving through the lunch-time crowd, stopping to chat to patrons and just generally create a presence that would be hard to top!

Marco met us just outside the restaurant, and having introduced himself, he quickly took us to a free table and made sure we were comfortable. After a short briefing of how the experience was going to flow, he again checked if we were completely comfortable, before serving us with our aperitif – Austrian Sparkling Wine, accompanied by mini sandwiches which were attractively laid out before us. Rich and I were so busy looking around us at the eclectic crowd, and admiring the decor in Zum Schwarzen Kameel, that we almost forgot to start eating! At this point, Marco excused himself, saying he needed to get things ready for our ride, and left us to enjoy our appetizer.

We had barely finished when we saw a lady behind the deli counter slicing some delicious-looking ham, straight off the huge chunk of meat. It was obviously very popular as there was quite a queue! Another lady was scooping what looked like bark or sticks out of a big sack. As she slid them into a bag, the most delicious and delicate fragrance of cinnamon filled the air. Seeing our curious (and longing) looks, she kindly scooped some onto a plate and pushed it across to us. Tasting the fragile pastry type cinnamon sticks was a treat we had not expected, but boy, were they yummy! We enjoyed crunching on the sweet and spicy sticks as we continued to people-watch in the busy restaurant.

Soon Marco reappeared, and said our carriage was waiting for us just outside. Slipping our jackets back on, we followed him a very short distance down the cobbled street to where our Fiaker carriage, coachman and pair of beautiful dark horses awaited. Taking a moment to say hello to our coachman Paul, and meet his well turned out charges, I heard that the two horses were named ‘Lucifer’ and ‘Mérde’. At this I smiled, and Paul chuckled and said, “he’s not so bad,” giving Lucifer a quick pat and Mérde an affectionate tug on the mane. You could immediately see that there was a great mutual respect between the horses and their driver, and the pair were in super condition, and looked well up to the task of conveying us round the inner city of Vienna in fine style.

Marco assisted us as we stepped up into the Fiaker. Settling down on the comfortable padded bench seats, he offered us warm blankets to place over our laps and legs, seeing as the winter weather was decidedly chilly! Rich and I sat opposite each other, and were just organising ourselves when Marco produced a bottle of wine, the Weingut Schmid GrünerVeltliner, from a vineyard in Austria. The carriage is set up to accommodate a dining table, with glass holders built into it to hold the specially designed wine glasses. Now with a glass of white wine to follow the sparkling wine we had just enjoyed, our first course was presented to us by Marco, who was to be our butler now as well as our host.

In front of us appeared two plates of the superb hand cut ham we had just observed in the deli. This was arranged on the plates with horseradish and some house bread from Zum Schwarzen Kameel. My mouth watered just looking at the pink meat and there was certainly a good size portion of it! Now we were ready to begin our ride properly, seeing as we were warmly tucked into our seats, wine glasses at the ready, and our first course beautifully presented on our table. Marco sprang up onto the front driver’s seat with Paul, who gently steered the horses onto the road to begin our sightseeing tour.

At a sedate walk we trundled elegantly past the fantastic and varied architecture of the inner city. Passing the Michaelerplatz and the Spanish Riding School, we were instructed to hold our wine glasses as the horses were about to start trotting. With barely a signal from the coachman, Lucifer and Mérde stepped up into a gentle, rhythmical trot, the sounds of their hooves ringing out from the cobbles, and echoing off the buildings we were gliding past. After a short while, the horses were brought back to a walk and as we traveled along, we were amused to see the faces of the people we were passing. They glanced at us, expecting to see the usual sight of horses and a carriage, but something about the presence of the table and our wine glasses held aloft made them look again. More than a few double-takes were noted, followed by smiles and obvious appreciation of our passage through the streets, wine in hand!

A short time later and the horses were eased to a stop outside Bitzinger’s Augustinerkeller, that was to be the origin of our second course. The breaks are timed so that you are given enough time to appreciate your food, and more importantly, so that the horses are given a break to rest. Paul slipped down from his post on the driver’s seat, and slid two blankets over the horses backs, so they would not get cold while they rested and we waited for Marco to come back from where he had vanished into the restaurant. All the while, people were passing us on foot or in cars, and many were looking back at us with more than a touch of envy. Feeling like royalty, we waved or raised a glass to our envious audience, and had a quiet giggle to ourselves at the attention we were receiving.

Marco came back after a short while and we were given two enormous plates filled with the most divine original Viennese Veal Schnitzel. This was dressed with Viennese garnish and accompanied by roast potatoes, which I almost didn’t notice, because they were hiding under the huge schnitzel that was filling up my plate! We were just starting to eat when the two horses were carefully directed back onto the road, and our next leg of the journey began. As we chomped our way through the wonderful meat, we were regaled with historical facts and interesting information about the buildings and places we were passing. Marco has a wealth of facts that he was very happy to share with us, even pointing out some lesser known places and indicating the site of a lesser known Christmas market which he highly recommended, being more traditional than some of the better known ones.

On through the streets we walked and trotted, eventually stopping in front of the well-known Hoffburg Palace, where Marco obligingly jumped off the carriage so that he could take more photos for us. We were all still giggling about some people we had just passed, as one of the guys had smiled and waved as we were approaching him, but when he saw our table setting and wine glasses, his smile broadened so far and he cheered and raised his hands up in applause, making our own smiles wider, if that was indeed possible! We had brightened up his day, that was for sure, and he even sent his little boy running back after us to take a photo. Once we had our own photos, Paul set us off on our way again, with Lucifer and Mérde obediently and patiently carrying us onwards, and to our last course.

By this stage I was already struggling to finish all the wonderful food, and had to conceded defeat about three-quarters through my schnitzel. I even had to admit to myself that I couldn’t even fit in another roast potato, (one of my favourites of all foods), and wondered how on earth I was going to manage yet more food. Our final course was brought to us outside one of the most famous coffee houses of Vienna, Café Landtmann, a setting with amazing food, and an extensive history. The Christmas tree added to the iconic atmosphere, as Marco served us with the to-die-for traditional Apple Strüdel and whipped cream. Wow, I knew I was full, but I had no idea how much of this delicious dessert I would be able to squeeze in. I was pushing the limits but it was SO worth it.

With the last of the wine and mineral water to wash down our fantastic meal, we slowly made our way back to our starting point. By this stage I was starting to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming, this had been such an out of this world experience. Literally from start to finish we had been treated as royalty, with professional courtesy and friendly hosts adding the finishing touches to what was an all-round fabulous experience. Arriving back at Bognergasse, the street near the first restaurant, we gathered our belongings, pushed the blankets back with more than a touch of regret, and alighted from the Fiaker. Paul jumped down to shake our hands and we took a moment to really appreciate the magnificent job the whole team are doing, from the hosts, coachmen and stunning horses, all the way to the suppliers and partners that help make this an experience of a lifetime.

I took an extra moment to thank the cheeky pair that had graced us with their presence on our Riding Dinner. Lucifer and Mérde were happy to have a pat and friendly scratch, Lucifer’s ears had gone back when we first went to touch him, but with a chuckled reproach from Paul, he soon regained his manners and obliging let us take a photo with him and his companion. All too soon it was over. Marco swiftly packed up the things he needed, and Paul hopped back into his seat so that he could guide his charges away and back to the stables for a well-earned rest. After exchanging details, Marco bid us farewell and slipped off to carry on to prepare for his next clients. Rich and I looked at each other and smiled, knowing we had another grand experience to add to the memory banks.

At the end of all of this, and I did write a comment about it in my TripAdvisor review, my one and only complaint about the Riding Dinner would be the size of the portions. There was just too much food! The team had responded to say they had to cater for all appetites, and felt their portions are a good “Austrian Portion”, with rather too much than too little! It was not a complaint at all, I just felt bad that I couldn’t finish each and every morsel of the splendid feast we had been presented with! Great care is taken of everyone involved in the experience, from the guests to the valuable horses, without whom the company would not be able to function. It was an experience to remember for all times, and I advise everyone to DO IT!

*Please note: there is an excellent article on the Riding Dinner Blog that talks about the care and consideration given to their most valuable team members, the horses. There are too many skeptics and nay-sayers that say carriage rides should be abolished. Well that may be true in places like Central Park and New York, and I think that also depends very heavily on the individual cases. In Vienna, the carriage horses are managed by their individual owners, but all companies do have to adhere to strict rules and protocols regarding the care and well-being of the horses at all times. The horses are not allowed to work more than four and a half days a week, giving them two and a half days break each. They are given vacations every year of five to seven weeks, and there is also a person in charge of them when they are waiting for their next ride, ensuring that they are fed, watered and generally in good form at all times.

So please do yourself a favour. If you find yourself in Vienna (and there are so many good reasons to visit this wonderful city!), make contact with the Riding Dinner Team and add this experience at the “most exclusive dinner table of the city” to your bucket list. You will not be disappointed. The next time Rich and I visit, we intend to try out another of the many options available from this marvelous company. Picnic in Schönbrunn, anyone?

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